There were moments last week when Ken Dryden, a tall young man who is the last line of defense and last best hope of hockey's only dynasty, no doubt wished he was still playing lawyer for Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt in Toronto instead of goaltender for the prestigious old Montreal firm of Le Club de Hockey Canadien. After all, when has a jury booed a lawyer the way Montreal's fanatical Frenchmen roasted Dryden one night as goal after goal after goal whizzed past him in the Forum? Or, for that matter, when has some tweedy counselor had to confront 108 pucks the way Dryden did in his week of trial by fire against the Buffalo Sabres, the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers?
For Dryden those games, against as formidable a trio of opponents as any team is likely to draw in succession, were a critical test of his comeback. Did he still have the heroic stuff of the Dryden who had singlehandedly detoured Boston from the 1971 Stanley Cup? Or the mettle of the man who had led the Canadiens through the glistening 1973 championship year, in which they lost only 10 games?
Dryden, remember, went AWOL from the Canadiens last season to serve as a $134-a-week law clerk, and it was a moot question whether he could make it all the way back on the ice. "We'll know by about 10:40 p.m Saturday," said Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman.
All things considered, Dryden probably should have pleaded nolo contendere when he argued Case No. 1 against the Sabres on Wednesday night. The game was played before hockey's choosiest fans, and it was a major embarrassment as Buffalo, suddenly the most potent scoring machine in the sport, poured 38 shots at the beleaguered Dryden and slapped the Canadiens 8-6. Worse, Montreal also lost Captain Henri Richard for at least two months when he suffered a broken ankle in the first period. As the Buffalo score mounted, the Forum crowd turned hostile, giving Dryden the St. Catherine's Street raspberry when he made the most routine save.
Normally unflappable, Dryden was steaming after the bombardment and the boos. "I told you I want Diet Seven-Up," he snapped at the trainers, spurning other soft drinks. He lowered his head. "It was not a reasonable response by the fans," he said, "but people are not always reasonable." In fact, of the eight goals Buffalo scored against Dryden, more than he had ever allowed before in a regular-season game, only one, a soft shot by Jerry Korab that caught him completely out of position, was the least bit tainted. And besides their eight goals, the Sabres also had seven other clean break-ins against Dryden. "We could have lost 13-6," said Bowman.
For reasons known only to themselves, the Canadiens nowadays play better hockey on enemy rinks than they do at the Forum. At home they have taken to staging what Dryden calls "shoot-'em-ups" with the opposition, disdaining logical defensive theory in favor of "last-goal-wins-the-game" silliness. For example, the Canadiens inexplicably allowed the shifty Buffalo center, Gilbert Perreault, to skate unchecked throughout the game and, much like the quarterback who works out of a protective pocket, he whipsawed the Canadiens with his skating, shooting and passing. Perreault scored one goal and set up three others, while his line-mate Rene Robert beat Dryden three times.
"I'm very upset and very depressed," Dryden said. "How could we play such an unbelievably stupid game? We made countless mistakes, but the definition of my job is that I am supposed to cover up the mistakes that other people make. I didn't do that in this game. And I can't rationalize that my mistakes were the last mistakes in the series because such thinking is false. A goal is my responsibility, pure and simple."
On the Canadiens' charter flight to Boston that night Dryden lost himself in John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, temporarily setting aside a hefty tome entitled The Consumer and Corporate Accountability. "My response to a game like tonight's," he said, "is that I still have a lot of energy that must be directed someplace. At that bloody book! Get it read!" By the time he fell asleep he was on page 223 of Tinker, Tailor, and he finished it the next day.
Dryden was still edgy Thursday afternoon as he awaited his first reunion with the Bruins. "We haven't beaten anyone yet," he grumbled. Indeed, the Canadiens had defeated only one team with a winning record so far, and they were six points behind the Los Angeles Kings in their divisional race. "When I came back to hockey in September," he said, "my initial feeling was one of total exhilaration at being involved in something so very different. Now I'm beginning to feel as though I was never away from the game. As the season has progressed, that initial exhilaration has given way to the more immediate feelings dictated by the performance of the team. Right now we all seem to be on a roller coaster."
He thought for a moment, a serious man in a serious mood. "Hockey is much like the litigation aspects of law," he said. "In both hockey and litigation there are long periods of preparation followed by relatively brief presentations. And then the results are there. Graphically! The jury returns its verdict. The red light flashes behind you. The numbers go up on the scoreboard. The only difference is that you can't appeal the decision of a goal judge during a hockey game."
After pondering the previous night's misadventures, Dryden decided to try a different strategy against the Bruins. "I have been giving up too many moderate goals," he said. "By moderate I mean a respectable goal but one I certainly would have stopped if I had played the shot correctly." Now Dryden planned to adopt an offensive posture. "I've been thinking of myself as a receptacle back there in the goal," he said. "To play well, you must be aggressive mentally—not a receptacle for someone. Instead of worrying about stopping the shooter, my attitude now will be that he has to beat me. I'm switching the onus; placing it on the shooter. Of course, I can't approach this in a false way. I've got to let it come naturally."
And suddenly that night those who saw it were transported back to the spring of 1971 when, as a rookie, Dryden stopped the cocky Bruins and snatched the Stanley Cup from their lips. The Canadiens began to play some defense. They kept the breakaways and the two-on-ones to a minimum. Though the Bruins still managed to pelt Dryden with 40 shots, he stopped 39 of them, allowing only a Bobby Orr blast to escape him, and the Canadiens won 4-1.
"Dryden is still a thieving giraffe," fumed Boston's Phil Esposito. The Bruins had had their power play on the ice for more than 12 minutes against Dryden but failed to beat him. Five times he devoured close-in shots by Esposito from the slot. Three times he turned aside Orr's slap shots from inside 40 feet. And twice—bang, bang—he turned back the big wing Ken Hodge at the goalmouth. Orr was disgusted after the game. "What we ought to do," he said, "is get Dryden a job with a law firm in Florida that won't let him play hockey on the side."
Dryden, meanwhile, was smiling as he sipped the kind of soda he had spurned in Montreal. "Why didn't we play like this at home?" he asked. "This was our first big win."
Back at the Forum Saturday night the Canadiens were outplayed by the Rangers but escaped with a 4-4 tie when Defenseman Serge Savard scored with only 24 seconds remaining. Dryden watched Savard's goal from the Montreal bench, having been replaced by an extra attacker. He had handled 30 shots and was not really at fault on any of the New York goals, but once more he was downcast. "I thought we had gotten off the roller coaster," he mumbled.
Considering his performance against Boston and the nonvintage character of his Canadien teammates, Dryden could have allowed himself a better frame of mind. The Bruin game had been his biggest verdict in any case since the time last winter when he helped persuade an Ontario judge that two clients deserved probation and not incarceration, although they admittedly had possessed illegal drugs.
Dryden did not turn his back on hockey during his law-clerking. He played defense for a team in an industrial league, and he did the color commentary for the telecasts of the Toronto Toro games. On Wednesday and Saturday nights he watched the NHL games on television but, like many fans, he really half-watched and half-read. "I saw all the replays," he said. "One thing I learned last year is that catching the replays has become a national sport."
One night Dryden went to Maple Leaf Gardens on an overdue errand—to collect his 1973 Stanley Cup ring from the Canadiens—and Coach Bowman invited him into the dressing room. "Things suddenly seemed natural again," Dryden recalled. "I was hit by towels and by flying bars of soap, and I was hopping over skates. Then the Canadiens were gone again, headed for Boston, and I was going home. It was upsetting that I was not going to Boston with them."
But not once did Montreal General Manager Sam Pollock get in touch with Dryden to inquire about his hockey plans. Dryden had left the team after a hassle over his 1973-74 contract, and when he signed with the Toros to handle their TV color, evidently Pollock, like most hockey people, assumed he had signed to play with the Toros in the future. ("My husband doesn't lie," says Lynda Dryden. "He said he hadn't signed with anyone, and he hadn't signed with anyone.") What Dryden learned in the television booth was that he did not want to play with the Toros or any other team in the WHA. "To me, it was obvious that the NHL still offered the best competition, the best challenge," he says. And so last May he agreed to return to the Canadiens, signing a three-year contract for an estimated $600,000.
"Ken worked like a madman all summer getting ready for hockey," Lynda Dryden says. "He went heavy on the yogurt, fruit shakes, honey, apples and fruit salad. He played squash daily and tennis frequently. He ran two miles each night, starting at 11 o'clock, and he played hockey a couple of nights a week, too. He wore all his goaltending equipment in those games but played defense, not goal." As a result Dryden weighed a trim 193 pounds when he checked into Montreal's training camp.
At the start of the season he played shakily, allowing five goals in the Canadiens' opener and then giving up "my absolute worst goal ever" in the second game when he missed a slow 120-foot roller from center ice. "I lifted the toe of my stick off the ice, and the puck just went under it," he recalls. "I fanned on the shot, pure and simple." After each game since Dryden has had to endure one of two descriptions. He was "the old Dryden" or "not the old Dryden."
Last week the old Dryden was plainly visible in one game of the big three, and that was enough to light up the ice.